Monday Craft Tips: Using details to portray repression

The ability to see the universe in a grain of sand or to convey volumes about a person or place by means of a well-chosen detail is the hallmark of a good writer. Here is an example of how Ryszard Kapuscinski characterizes Emperor Haile Selassie in his book The Emperor:

It was a small dog, a Japanese breed. His name was Lulu. He was allowed to sleep in the Emperor’s great bed. During various ceremonies, he would run away from the Emperor’s lap and pee on dignitaries’ shoes. The august gentlemen were not allowed to flinch or make the slightest gesture when they felt their feet getting wet. I had to walk among the dignitaries and wipe the urine from their shoes with a satin cloth. This was my job for ten years. (5)

dogThe dog is small, so it’s not there to guard the Emperor, but to provide some pleasure and entertainment. This is borne out by his name, ‘Lulu’, a woman’s name. He is allowed to sleep in the Emperor’s bed, so the Emperor is lonely. During the ceremonies, he sits on the Emperor’s lap, then jumps up to wander around and pee on the dignitaries’ shoes. The Emperor hasn’t bothered to discipline the dog, probably because he finds its behavior amusing. The gentlemen may be august, but they are not allowed to flinch or make any gesture. In the guise of the dog, the Emperor is crossing their boundaries and invading their space, and requiring them not to make any hint of a complaint about it. They are held in his thrall while they are having an audience with him. But because the dog is making unpleasant messes, the Emperor allows a lowly servant to walk around to wipe the urine off their shoes, using a satin cloth. Not any kind of cloth will do, it has to be satin, which is intended to show off the magnificence of the Emperor and his court, but also hints that the Emperor may be living beyond his means. The narrator remarks in the last sentence that this was his job for ten years, conveying how ossified, how stagnant, and how boring that court was.

In a small paragraph of a few words, Kapuscinski has told us volumes about the personality of the Emperor and the tone of his court by choosing a few key details.

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